Alfred Beit, by Giovanni Boldini
15 February 1853|
Hamburg, German Confederation
|Died||16 July 1906
Alfred Beit (15 February 1853 – 16 July 1906) was a British South African, gold and diamond magnate and a major donor and profiteer of infrastructure development in central and Southern Africa, and to university education and research in several countries.
Life and career
Born and brought up in Hamburg, Germany, he was the eldest son and second of six children of an affluent Jewish Hamburg trader. He was an unpromising scholar and was apprenticed to Jules Porgès & Cie, the Amsterdam diamond firm where he developed a talent for examining stones.
Beit made his first fortune in property speculation. Responding to a demand for business premises, he bought a piece of land and built twelve corrugated iron sheds for offices and rented eleven out monthly and kept one for himself. Twelve years later he sold the land for a considerable profit.
Beit was sent to Kimberley in 1875 by his firm to buy diamonds—following the diamond strike at Kimberley. He became a business friend of Cecil Rhodes through his role in the Kimberley Central Company. Beit was captivated by Rhodes' talk of 'big schemes'. Together, they proceeded to buy out digging ventures and to eliminate opposition such as Barney Barnato. He rapidly became one of a group of financiers who gained control of the diamond-mining claims in the Central, Dutoitspan, and De Beers mines. Rhodes was the active politician and Beit provided a lot of the planning and financial backing.
Beit's diamond interests were mainly concentrated on Kimberley mine. He focused his main attention on the Kimberley Central Company aiming to expand its interests. He had a major role in the rise of Kimberley Central Company.
In 1886 Beit extended his interests to the newly discovered goldfields of the Witwatersrand and met with great success. In his business ventures there he made use of financiers Hermann Eckstein and Sir Joseph Robinson. He founded the Robertson Syndicate and the firm of Wernher, Beit & Co. He imported mining engineers from the USA and was among the first to adopt deep-level mining. Rhodes concluded a treaty with Lobengula, as a result of which Beit founded the British South Africa Company in 1888.
Beit became life-governor of De Beers and also a director of numerous other companies such as Rand Mines, Rhodesia Railways and the Beira Railway Company.
In 1888 Beit moved to London whence he felt he was better able to manage his financial empire and support Rhodes in his Southern African ambitions. Beit moved into Tewin Water, near Welwyn, a large Regency house with Victorian additions and 7,000 acres (28 km²), and a few miles away Julius Wernher at last bought Luton Hoo, with 5,218 acres (21.1 km²).
Inspired by Rhodes' imperialist vision, he took part in the planning and financing of the unsuccessful Jameson Raid of late 1895 which was intended to trigger a coup in the South African Republic in the Transvaal. As a result of this debacle, Rhodes resigned as Prime Minister, and both he and Beit were found guilty by the House of Commons inquiry. Beit was obliged to resign as director of the Charter Company, but was elected vice-president of the British South Africa Company a few years later. With the death of Rhodes in 1902, Beit, as one of the trustees, helped control the enormous estate.
The Beit Trust and other donations
During his lifetime, Beit made generous donations for scientific work and education. In 1905 he founded a chair of colonial history at the University of Oxford, which is now the Beit Professor of History of the British Commonwealth. In 1906 he made the donation of two million mark to the stock capital of the Hamburgische Wissenschaftliche Stiftung, a charity dedicated to spend its interest for the benefit of a precursor of the University of Hamburg.
In his will he set up the Beit Trust through which he bequeathed large sums of money (£1,200,000) for infrastructure development in the former Northern and Southern Rhodesia, later modified to university education and research in Zimbabwe, Zambia and Malawi.
In recognition of his bequests the Royal School of Mines, a faculty of Imperial College London, erected a large memorial to Beit flanking the entrance to its building. The Imperial College residential halls on Prince Consort Road was named 'Beit Hall' after him.
- Meredith, Martin (2007). Diamonds, Gold, and War: The British, the Boers, and the Making of South Africa. New York: PublicAffairs. ISBN 9781586484736.
- University of Oxford, Faculty of History. URL http://www.history.ox.ac.uk/staff/postholder/brown_jm.htm
- Albrecht, Henning (2012). Alfred Beit: The Hamburg Diamond King. Hamburg: Hamburg University Press. ISBN 978-3-943423-01-3.